Colin Powell: a would-be President ruined by Iraq
He was once described as 'a modern George Washington'
Imagine a world in which Bush-era Republicans retired at 60.
Before the administration of George W. Bush, America’s most destructive president, Donald Rumsfeld would have been the youngest Secretary of Defense in history, White House Chief of Staff, Middle East envoy, a successful businessman and a would-be president.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Meanwhile, Colin Powell, a working class, Jamaican-American kid from Harlem turned war hero, would have seen out his time as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and national security advisor during a successful war (Iraq I).
Dick Cheney… would still be Dick Cheney. But it was Powell, who died today of Covid complications, who stood out above the rest as one of the most highly regarded men in Washington. If the country’s first black secretary of state had hung it up in the late 1990’s, he would have retired an unabashed hero.
In fact, Powell’s stock was running so high that in 1996, the first black president might have been a Republican. Clinton was beaten badly in the 1994 midterms and the Republicans needed a charismatic standard-bearer to finish him off. “The country will be looking for a man of a certain character,” Republican kingmaker William J. Bennet told Powell. “We’re always playing out some version of George Washington, the indispensable man. …And you’re him, you know. If there’s a modern Washington, you’re him”.
But dashing the hopes of the GOP, Powell chose not to run.
Years later, Powell became a key figure in the George W. Bush administration, serving as Secretary of State from 2001-2005. His infamous address to the United Nations in early 2003 — at the urging of his administration colleagues, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Defense honcho Paul Wolfowitz, among others — will forever mar his record. As the man with the greatest crossover appeal in the Bush administration, Powell did the sales job for a war he privately had great reservations about.
Powell, in public, made the case with a calculated politician’s passion, arguing that the absence of evidence was no evidence of absence. “Tell me, answer me,” the then-Secretary of State told the U.N. Security Council, “are the inspectors to search the house of every government official, every Baath Party member and every scientist in the country to find the truth, to get the information they need, to satisfy the demands of our council?”
Powell’s self-defence years later, in 2016, that the address was “a great intelligence failure” didn’t cut it, any more than Tony Blair’s insistence that year that “I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever believe” will save him from the judgement of history. I’ve had the occasion to know folks in Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz’s orbit, and to them, Powell is the real villain because he didn’t really believe, but plunged ahead anyway. It’s an extremist’s view, but it’s not without a point.
As the late journalist Mark Perry told Harper’s in 2010:
There were administration officials who were ousted over policy differences in those bad, dangerous days of the early 2000’s, such as Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, who denounced the Iraq war pretty much in real time.
At the moment of his greatest testing, Colin Powell was not one of them — and alongside his accomplishments and virtues, that will always be remembered.
Excuse me if I don’t join the gushing over yet another African-American who could have or should have been President, who was all things to all people, who was Black Jesus before Obama.
Let’s remember that Colin Powell was a huge beneficiary of “positive discrimination,” and virtually ALL of his promotions were because of this. He was not even on the list to be selected for General when President Carter, that genius who personally managed the White House tennis courts schedule, sent the list back telling whoever compiled it to add some black guys. Presto! General!
The BBC’s hagiography of Powell was particularly disgusting, and would be beneath BBC standards if they had any. First, the coverage was by Razia Iqbal, who identified herself as a personal friend of Powell and his wife and sent personal condolences, and was such a hagiography that I almost lost it. It had zero balance. Please, if you can, don’t pay the license fee!
There was a UK Ambassador to the US, I think, who worked with Powell and said that he was handed a lot of tosh by the Bushies–Cheney in particular–before his UN speech, and Powell would sort it out before addressing the UN. He did not sort it out. At the most important moment of his career, and at a key crossroads in history, Powell lacked the courage to stand up for his beliefs.
The next hagiographer was Gen. David Petraeus, who gushed even more over Powell, suggesting at one point that Iraq really did have WMD that were found years later. He strongly suggested that Powell did “sort this out” and gave a fair and honest speech at the UN. Utter tosh!
Is this the same Gen. Petraeus who is a convicted criminal, you ask? The same Gen. Petraeus who gave reams and reams of ultra top secret documents to his lover in an adulterous relationship (I am not a prude and only mention this because adultery is a crime under military law), and lied to the FBI about this? The same David Petraeus who received extremely special treatment by being allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor (not serious) charge and did not go to prison, though anyone under his exalted rank would be breaking rocks in Leavenworth (US military prison) for many years?
Yes, that would be the one. An American criminal and traitor, hardly an eminence grise.
I protested in the streets against the invasion of Iraq before it happened. Because much of the US was under the hypnotic spell of Powell at that time, as it would later be under Obama, and who was equally undeserving, I sincerely believe that if Powell had refused to give that pathetic, pandering, false speech and had resigned on principle, that the US would not have invaded Iraq and that history would be very different.
The invasion of Iraq was essentially a war crime and Powell and many others have blood on their hands. Powell lacked courage when it was most needed. He is certainly not an American hero, he is a disgrace, a coward.
Finally, can we stop the undue emphasis on “he died from complications of Covid-19?” He was 84 years old. He had cancer. He had a compromised immune system. It was time. Why is that even worth mentioning? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say he died with Corona instead of he died from Corona? He was an 84 year old with cancer. Is this an “excess death?”
Character is continuing to do the right thing even at the most difficult moment.
Like Gordon Brown, who also had major misgivings over Iraq and never spoke out, the word coward will always be applicable to both men.
I’d forgotten about all these frauds. They make Christine Lagarde seem benign.
Agreed on all points. Powell was a wobbly yes-man, a military careerist who never wanted to rock the boat. For this very reason, he was well-liked by both parties, hence his success in climbing the ladder in DC. Also, a well-meaning and patriotic man. And for this very reason, easily manipulated by Cheney and Rumsfeld. In addition, he was an articulate and talented speaker, which Americans found reassuring. But his real leadership skills were overstated by the media due to his racial identity. And, yes, after fighting cancer for 3 or 4 years, it’s just an absurd lie to say he died from covid.
It is impossible to overstate how Powell was made by the Bushies, after Carter had him promoted to general, a promotion he did not deserve, as he was a massive beneficiary of positive discrimination.
Alberto Gonzales. Huh? Oh, you’ve forgotten him because he’s so….forgettable? He was Bush’s Attorney General–an extremely stupid, incompetent Mexican, adopted and promoted by the Bush family.
Colin Powell was essentially the same, a bit smarter than Gonzales, but the bar is very low. Because of their wealth and class, nobless oblige required the “promotion” of these “disadvantaged” minorities, brought into the fold of wealth and power to be trotted out as needed. The Bushes, perhaps the last of this class system, used this system so well, and probably believed that it was, to a degree, on merit. See, I have a black friend. Woke and virtue signalling before it was a thing.
Gonzales was a “useful idiot” for the Bushes. Colin Powell the same, though he became pretty big but lacked courage when it was really needed.
It is absolutely disgusting to see these hagiographies–BBC among the worst offenders–gushing over how Powell put country over self. Tosh!
He was a war criminal, a liar, a coward, a traitor. When he could have redeemed himself, he put self over country.
You have just turned the light on in relation to this issue
Well, you covered all the bases this political general touched on his way to home plate. You might have mentioned brown-nosing. That’s how you get to the top in any military bureaucracy, especially those that are Woke.
“…with a calculated politician’s passion”
I think that’s what Powell really was–a highly skilled politician even more than a soldier. He was a chameleon who changed positions (or appeared to change positions) when it suited his ends. He was certainly considered as a possible presidential candidate at one point but who knows what kind of president he would have been. His true beliefs were always so well hidden.
Not only was this war criminal responsible for convincing Americans that Iraq had missiles which it didn’t, he was also implicated in the My Lai cover-up. Rot in hell.
Excellent. Should have mentioned that. Also, was afraid to say “rot in hell” because of censors, but glad you did and glad it is posted!
Well done, you!
Quit after he said W was the most destructive president. Like him or not (and my view has turned very negative in the last couple years), agree with him or not, he was absolutely nowhere close to that. That title actually goes to Lincoln, although most people agree with his goals. That doesn’t change the fact he was the most destructive, even though he desperately wanted to avoid a war in the first place.
And if you want to choose one based on an immoral war and totalitarian principles, then the dishonor goes to Woodrow Wilson. The original progressive president who curtailed nearly all constitutional freedoms, involved us in an immoral war (I know Saddam has a large fan club, but regardless of whether Iraq II as a good idea or not, he was a brutal dictator and taking him out could not be called immoral, only a bad idea for practicality’s sake), and then used said war as an opportunity vastly expand executive power and attempt to transform the nation to progressive whims. W’s bad actions were blunders. Wilson’s were calculated. And the body counts for each were nowhere near comparable. For that matter, why does W take the blame for the infighting among Iraqi factions? The same people who criticize him for that never blame Saddam for the civilian slaughter that occurred during his reign. At least part of that Saddam could not have avoided, much like W, due to the fractured nature of the country. But he did things that even his predecessors never did. That is actually significant, when you consider that since the country came into existence, the primary goal of the Iraqi army has been as a tool for the government to use against its own citizens. The Iran-Iraq war was actually an unusual event, and indeed one of the reasons the Iraqi Army so singularly failed in the first year was that it was designed to quell domestic dissent, not fight a foreign power. It was only as a result of the Iran-Iraq war that it was transformed into the entity that invaded Kuwait and terrified much of the world in 1990-1991 (though even then it turned out to be much hype and little substance).
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe